Book Reviews, Love, Sociocultural Phenomena

The Desire of Desire – Eva Illouz: Why Love Hurts. A Sociological Explanation

Part 2

«At the heart of the hyper-modern imagination is the desire of desire, the fact that one is kept in a state of perpetual desire, and chooses to defer the gratification of one’s desire precisely in order to maintain one’s desire and to maintain the desired object with an aesthetic shape. … a desire that feeds itself and has little capacity to operate the shift from fantasy to daily life.» 

Eva Illouz, Why Love Hurts. A Sociological Explanation, Cambridge: Polity, 2013, pp. 234, 237.

The critique of reason

“Whether reason can give meaning to our lives is the fundamental question of modernity.” In fact, Illouz criticizes the way we deploy reason: “Non-scientific explanations might be superior to scientific ones because they are holistic and more organically connected to the totality of our lived experience…. To be tolerable, human existence requires a modicum of myth, illusion, and lying. Only lies and illusions can make the violence of social relationships bearable…. Knowledge and reason come at the price of desecrating that which we once revered…. Modernity is defined by its ambivalence toward its legitimating cultural core, by a sense of dread of the powers it may unleash.” (pp. 169, 157-8)

In the subchapter «Semiotic Certainty», Illouz turns to the subjects of ambiguity and seduction:  “Thick identities and ritualized behavior create semiotic certainty, which, paradoxically, is the condition for the creation of pleasurable ambiguous meanings…. Ambiguity is made possible when stabilized meanings are played with and twisted.  … It is thus semiotic certainty which can create ambiguity, the feeling of play and pleasure.  … In contrast, the emptying of romantic relationships from power relationships has the semiotic effect of making gender signs less marked, and thus of decreasing the capacity to generate ambiguity, often thought to be an ingredient of seduction.” (p. 190)

Liberté – Égalité – Séduction

«Seduction often uses ambiguous codes, which make the prototypical seducers of Western culture exemplary of a certain form of freedom from morality… Seducers use ambiguous speech because they do not feel accountable to norms of sincerity and symmetry. So-called ‹politically correct› practices, by contrast, request a form of transparency and lack of ambiguity—so as to ensure maximum contractual freedom and equality, and thus neutralize the traditional rhetorical and emotional halo of seduction. The rationalization of love has undermined the regimes of meaning on which eroticism and love are based…. What makes politically correct language unacceptable is that it excludes the emotional fantasies and pleasure on which traditional gender relations are built, but does not fundamentally shake or transform the structure of gender inequalities which gnaw at the emotional core of relationships…. In other words, equality demands a redefinition of eroticism and romantic desire that has yet to be accomplished (pp. 191–192).»

Illouz is spot on in quoting her US colleague Jeffrey Alexander, that it is «the quality of avoiding determination by rational thought or moral understanding, not absolute dissociation from them, that makes an experience aesthetic; the very freedom from a priori determination that, subsequent to the aesthetic experience, allows greater conceptual and moral development in turn (p. 192).»

Freedom of choice and freedom from choice

Illouz continues on the subject of freedom: “If—as many agree—the cult of freedom in the economic realm can and does sometimes have devastating consequences—producing uncertainty and large income inequalities, for example—then we should at the very least similarly inquire about its consequences in the personal, emotional, and sexual realms. In the same way that freedom in the economic realm creates inequalities and makes them invisible, freedom in the sexual realm has had the same effect of obscuring the social conditions which make possible the emotional domination of men over women.” (p. 240)

Moreover, Illouz identifies the risks and dangers that our extended and worn-out notion of freedom involves in political terms, too. For freedom can lead to aporia and incapacity to choose, or even to eliminating the desire to exercise choice altogether: “If there is a history of freedom, then we can say that we have moved from the struggle for freedom to the difficulty to choose, and even to the right not to choose.” (p. 108)

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